Q&A: Julia Stiles

The Hollywood star talks about her role in series five of FX's super-dark drama, Dexter

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This year, Dexter (Fridays FX) has snared a big Hollywood name for its customary guest-starring slot. Julia Stiles, seen previously in the Bourne trilogy, Mona Lisa Smile and 10 Things I Hate about You, has joined the cast as Lumen Pierce, a woman Dexter Morgan (Michael C Hall) saves and then befriends. We met Stiles to discuss her move into TV.

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It seems Lumen is a bit different to the big guest characters in previous series?
Yeah. The most obvious difference is that I’m a girl. Most of the guest stars previously had some insight into Dexter’s secret world, but Lumen being a girl brings out a whole other set of issues, especially in the wake of Rita’s death.

Did you have her story arc mapped out for you before you signed up? Most of the guest characters tend to be crazy people who end up being killed.
The writers consciously wanted to break away from the formula that had been established in the first four seasons. They couldn’t show me all the scripts because they hadn’t written them, and they’re also very secretive, so there was only a broad outline. I could ask questions, though, and one of the first questions I asked was: does she kill people? I got a vague answer but I still wanted to do it. It was a leap of faith, but I was a fan of the show.

Were you worried about what your character might do? A lot of your previous screen roles have been quite upstanding, wholesome types.
I was excited by it. I think the most interesting characters are slightly unsympathetic or flawed. Dexter is committing murder, but he’s acting in a way that makes you root for him. It brings up all these questions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and I knew that Lumen would fit into that. It makes for good drama, right? If we’re all upstanding citizens, that’s not a play I want to see. Boring!

This is your first TV series. Is that something you particularly wanted to do? Has TV become the equal of movies in terms of producing good drama?
I think it depends on the show and the network, but certainly cable is allowed to take bolder risks, especially an established show like Dexter where the fans respond to more controversial subject matter.

It’s a bit like the Bourne films in that it’s basically a thriller, but a quality one with some brains behind it.
Yeah. The mystery aspect and the cliffhangers, I really appreciate those. And there’s something classic about the storytelling in Dexter. It’s obviously suspenseful, but the story is so psychologically driven. That’s really appealing to me. Like the Bourne movies, it’s driven by an anti-hero.

Do you have any hankering to become a bigger name than you are?
I just want to be a working actor. It’s easier to do that when you’re more well known, so that’s a delicate dance.

I’m not aware of any movies you’ve done for money, or to raise your profile.
I started very young so I had some… trial and error moments! Now I’m in my old age, I’m a little clearer about my goals. But actors aren’t as in control of their careers as we’d like to think. No matter how big a star you are, you have to accept that your future is insecure and uncertain. If you’re OK living with that, you’re fine.

You’ve had a lot of success without becoming a “celebrity”. Was that deliberate?
Sort of. I’m very wary of that, seductive as it might be to some people because maybe it gets you more work or makes you feel validated in some way. To me, that’s always been a scary prospect, something you can’t control. I value my relationships with friends and significant others. I’d never want to sully them by having them used to promote a movie, which is really what it comes down to.

Has Dexter brought you more exposure, to a different audience?
What’s really exciting about it is the immediate reward, having it come out so soon after you make it. Dexter fans are passionate and dedicated, and give an immediate response, which is invigorating. It’s harder to believe an actor in a role if you know too much about their personal life. Dexter reinforced that, because the character is so different to how I am. I don’t think I could have pulled that off if people knew more about me.

Do you want to hear my weird theory about what Dexter and some other US dramas are really about?

Yes please!

I think it’s about male emotional inadequacy. Dexter himself is a metaphor for men’s hang-ups, particularly in the last two series. He doesn’t want people to find out about the real, disgusting him – he’s often seen hastily shutting off the internet when a woman walks in – and he also doesn’t think he’s capable of loving a woman, being a proper father, or dealing with grief, but he’s forced to do all those by circumstance. The Sopranos, and Mad Men especially, are also about how emotionally stunted men are. What do you think about that, then?
Wow. You just blew my mind. That’s… um, very well observed. So does that mean all men are keeping secrets?

Yes. That’s what we’re like. Although we’re not all murderers.
You just shattered my world. I wonder if it’s a uniquely male thing, though. What would the female equivalent be?

Could there be one? If Dexter were a woman, would people buy it?
I’m not sure about the serial killer thing, but a woman with a secret life, of course.

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But could you have a female serial killer? This is an important part of my theory.
I think people would buy it, if there’s a reason for it. We’ve rooted for Dexter’s badness and now we’re rooting for Lumen’s badness too.